Since 1989, there have been thousands of confirmed planets orbiting other stars just in our immediate vicinity of the Milky Way. Thousands of other planets haven’t been officially confirmed. We certainly haven’t seen any of these planets with much detail because of the vast distances, but that day may come. In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine a world more beautiful than our Earth. In my opinion, Saturn is in second place and is now making its 2022 debut into the early evening sky.
Saturn is hands down my absolute favorite telescope target. Even with a small telescope, you can see Saturn’s ring system. Now that I’m blessed to own large telescopes, Saturn is over the top! Even more fun for me is being able to show Saturn off over many years to hundreds and hundreds of folks at my stargazing programs, especially to the kids. I never get tired of hearing reactions like “sweet,” “awesome,” “incredible,” “holy ____,” and much more!
If you’ve never seen Saturn through a telescope, now is the time. Currently, Earth and Saturn are separated by just under 825 million miles. This month, Earth and Saturn are at what astronomers call opposition, their closest approach to each other for 2022. Opposition occurs when the Earth finds itself in a line between the sun and Saturn as it orbits the sun. This happens every 378 days or so, just over a year.
As evening twilight ends, the brightest “star” you can see is Saturn in the very low southeastern sky. You can try to get a close look at it with your telescope then, but you’ll probably be disappointed. It will look really fuzzy because when you observe any celestial object that’s low in the sky, you’re forced to peer through more of Earth’s blurring atmospheric shell than you do when the target is higher. So if you can stay up late enough, like well after midnight, you’ll get a much clearer view of Saturn. It’s worth losing some sleep over!
Saturn is the second-largest planet in our solar system. Its hallmark is its wonderful, intricate ring system that spans over 175,000 miles, more than half of the distance between Earth and its moon. Amazingly, the ring system is only about 50 feet thick in most places! As with all of the outer planets in our solar system, the planet itself is basically a ball of hydrogen and helium gas.
The ring system is made of ice. It’s not a solid ice sheet but instead is made of billions of particles of ice debris, in sizes ranging from tiny crystals to larger than school buses. Millions of years ago, one or two of Saturn’s ice moons wandered a little too close to Saturn and were ripped to shreds by the planet’s tremendous tidal forces.
Along with Saturn’s ring system, it’s also possible, even with a small telescope, to see some of Saturn’s larger moons, which look like tiny stars surrounding the planet. The biggest and brightest is Titan, over 3,200 miles in diameter. That’s larger than the planet Mercury! One of Saturn’s much smaller moons, Enceladus, is a strong candidate for possible life under its surface. The Cassini spacecraft detected shooting geysers of water emerging from Enceladus.
When viewing Saturn or any other planet with a telescope, it’s important to discipline yourself to take long, continuous views through your scope. Your eye needs to adjust to the level of light coming into your scope. Hang in there, and keep your eye over that eyepiece long enough to catch at least brief better views of Saturn as pockets of calmer and clearer air drift in between you and Saturn. You’ll be rewarded for your patience most nights!
Enjoy Saturn. It’s the best!
MIKE LYNCH MINNESOTA/WISCONSIN STARWATCH PROGRAMS:
Friday, Sept. 2, 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., Lake Elmo Park Reserve, Lake Elmo. For information and reservations, call 651-430-8370 or visit www.co.washington.mn.us/index.aspx?NID=532.
Saturday, Sept. 3, 8:30 to 11:30 p.m., Forest History Center, Grand Rapids, Minn. For more information, call 218-327-4482 or visit sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/forest-history-center.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.